There may have been a bombshell buried in last night’s Democrat debate. It depends on whether John Edwards misspoke or accidentally let an inconvenient fact slip out.

RUSSERT: Was it appropriate for you to talk to Musharraf at that time, perhaps give him cover at a time when he needed legitimacy?

EDWARDS: It was absolutely appropriate. In fact, I didn’t actually speak…place a call to President Musharraf. I placed a call to the Pakistani ambassador in the United States and told him that I knew Musharraf. We had met in Islamabad years ago and talked about some of the problems in Pakistan at that time.

And it goes on from there to describe the “tough” things Edwards said to the Pakistani ambassador. The debate moved on to other questions, so there was no follow-up on Edwards’ answer from the other candidates or the moderators.

The story of Edwards’ conversation with Musharraf broke on an Iowa radio station on December 27. There was a great deal of head-scratching here and elsewhere when Edwards first started hinting that he’d spoken to Musharraf shortly after Bhutto’s assassination. It made very little sense for Musharraf to take a call from a former senator who stood little chance of winning his party’s nomination, let alone the presidency itself. But here’s the thing. Originally, stories about this had Edwards claiming to have spoken with Musharraf himself, not the Pakistani ambassador to the US, in the US. It became Edwards’ talking point to show that he was the most presidential candidate in the race — in the middle of a crisis, he can just pick up a phone and chat up whoever is in the middle of that crisis. Because that person will pick up the phone if John Edwards is on the other end of the call, of course.

Edwards also detailed his conversation with Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf from Thursday in which he told that country’s leader he needs to allow “independent international inspectors into Pakistan to determine the facts of what happened around the former prime minister’s assassination. That kind of transparent process is the only way there’s going to be any credibility.”

That’s from December 28, this ABC story. The above paragraph is how the phone call story was characterized; Edwards never bothered to correct it until last night in Nevada. The story of the phone call itself had broken the prior day, December 27, and Edwards was making the most of it.

John Edwards again told caucusgoers about his phone call with Pervez Musharraf this afternoon, this time taking a bit more critical tone of the Pakistani president.

After reiterating his insistence that Pakistan “continue on this path to democratization with free and open elections,” Edwards expressed some skepticism.

“He assured me he’d do it,” said Edwards. “But we have to hold his feet to the fire because he’s made those kind of promises before.”

This MSNBC story actually got closest to getting it right from the start, with Edwards first calling and then getting called back, but it infers that Edwards called Pakistan, not the Pakistani ambassador in the US, and that he spoke with Musharraf himself.

Edwards spoke in Waukon this afternoon about having calls in to Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf. Then, at his second event in Decorah, he told Iowans that he got his call returned.

“He called me,” Edwards said, “because I told the ambassador I’d like to speak to him. I met him a few years ago, which I think I told you earlier, and we had a conversation in which I urged him to continue the democratization process. He told me, he gave me his assurances that he intended to do that, and we also spoke about having international independent investigators allowed into the country for transparency purposes, for credibility purposes, and we spoke briefly about the elections.”

That in mind, go back and watch the clip again. Edwards slips and says he didn’t speak with Musharraf at all, at : 36 into the clip. And Edwards doesn’t say that Musharraf actually called him back. The “he” to whom Edwards refers might well be Musharraf, but might also be the Pakistani ambassador speaking on Musharraf’s behalf, and perhaps not even in any direct response from Musharraf. It could be and now sounds more like a “of course we’ll stay on the path to democracy, now leave us alone so we can deal with the brewing civil war. And who are you again?” response. Or it could be that Edwards misspoke last night, but the rest of his reply seems artfully constructed to gloss over who Edwards was actually talking to after he mentions the ambassador. Unless he can provide some proof or Musharraf steps forward to vouch for the conversation, Edwards’ slip gives reason to doubt that Edwards actually ever spoke with President Musharraf at all.

And if it turns out that Edwards didn’t speak with Musharraf, what do we do with Edwards’ claim that his phone call calmed Pakistan?

(h/t John Ziegler)

Tags: Iowa Nevada